“In the Desert with Ria Pacquée” by Michael Taussig, November 2007

“To get a job here, you have to decolor.”

Ria Pacquee’s artwork the past few years has centered on color in a postcolonial world. She makes you ask: What is color?

Ria Pacquée does not talk color but lives it, in her travels, her imagination, and in her art. She takes us on color walks, like William Burroughs while staying in the Beat Hotel in Paris in the early 1960s. Only with Ria Pacquée the walks are more ambitious, go a lot further in terms of physical distance and, above all, trace the lines and the spirals, the empty spaces and raptures, that spell out the attraction and repulsion that vivid colors hold for Western culture since centuries.

In his book on color, Goethe noted several times that “people of refinement” are averse to vivid colors and banish them from their immediate surrounding all together. On the other hand, “man in a state of nature” and children welcome strong colors.(1) Yet does not this aversion to vivid colors – like all aversions – mask a deep-seated attraction? Does not chromophobia mask chromophillia?

Ria Pacquée’s artwork explores this problem. She travels to East Africa, Yemen, Turkey, and India, on her color walks. Her “essays” on color as conducted by her video camera are studies in the color contrast between Western Europe and these places, and the contrast is significant. We see the yellow, pinks, lime green and mauves that exist side by side in Indian streets, the pulsing light blue of house fronts, the almost violent hues on shrines with their deep, deep, greens and reds, the rich colors of the food and flowers, and above all the vividly colored saris contrasted with the black skin such that at times these Indian women in India seem like color clothing the world.

Color for Ria Pacquée means the place of the human body in color and, what is more, her own body in the midst of this, color-walking.

The video that most brings this out for me has the curious title “Vox Clamans in Deserto - 2003.” It is short, maybe five minutes long, and is notable for a furious, feverish, sound, a sound like a strong wind scraping branches or labored human breathing. It is mysterious, this sound. Against this background red flashes at us in a variety of ways and hues. Sometimes it is the space between images, such that we are left with a flat wide, tomato-red, screen and nothing else. Other times it is diluted blood in a puddle on a stone-laid street, the blood looking more abject than pure blood because of its diluted messiness. Other times it’s a tinge of pink and russet red in drying meat, thus being life but also the decay of life, as with the diluted blood puddle. Another time this red is a mere sparkle or hint as in the sand thrown violently by the artist at her own face – she is all black, there is no face, all is covered, down to her toes – but the sand is thrown violently and sticks on the black cloth that covers the face, a mask of dark emptiness with colored freckles blinking light.

Here color comes across as more than a surface film covering a preexisting form. Yet this notion of color as a film covering surface seems to be the way color is commonly conceptualized in the West, as a “secondary quality” subservient to form. Of course there have been times and art movements in the West that have opposed this idea. Goethe himself is inclined to seeing color as more than a film covering a surface, and that is one reason, I believe, why Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols called him Dionysian. Virginia Woolf adheres to this view of color as a substance, alive and flowing, too. And she was strongly influenced by the art movement known as Impressionism which uses color to break up form. Writing to her sister Vanessa in 1938, Virginia, aged fifty-six, described the Isle of Skye in Scotland like this: “One should be a painter. As a writer I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hair-pin.”(2)

When Ria Pacquée, filming herself as the faceless artist in black from head to toe hurls sand with a red sparkle onto the empty space that is the face, we have, I believe, the same sort of champagne action using color – not only to break up form, but also to get across the idea that color is a substance as well, in this case like sand, sand with an edge to it, sand that sparkles ever so softly in the harsh light of the desert.

I have said that the artist’s strategy is that of the color walk, yet in its specifics the walk in this video is also a hurtling – a hurtling back and forth like a frenzied being similar to the background crazy sound, back and forth she rushes in front of the camera, slightly stooped all in black, veiled and head covered, in contrast to the white-grey tones of the desert.

This to my mind is a sharp reminder of the love-hate relationship the West has with vivid colors. Back and forth. Back and forth. The frenzied sound also back and forth, back and forth.

At the end of the video we are shown a red pencil furiously marking red on white paper. Back and forth. Back and forth. Love and hate. Love and hate. This is what was making the sound all along.

And why is she all in black? Could it be related to the fact color is intimately related through the first experiments in dyeing cotton to both alchemy and chemistry which got their name from the name of Egypt itself, Kamt or Qemt, meaning the color black, as applied to the mud of the River Nile? This name was given to the black powder resulting from the quicksilver process in Egyptian metallurgy, powder that was identified with the body of Osiris, god of the dead.(3)

Dying and Dyeing. Nothing could be more magically tremendous than that other world, that world of the dead over which Osiris presides – nothing, that is, other than the world of color that emerges from the world of blackness.

As for that black mud, protoplasmic Osiris, we might say, drifting and compacting at the bottom of the meandering Nile, equivalent to the refuse remaining at the bottom of the alchemist’s pot following combustion – hearken to the most mightily alchemical transformation conceivable, not of base metal into gold, but of black into living color as when that cantankerous old writer of Naked Lunch fame, William Seward Burroughs, tells us of the mysterious jet-black cat, Smoker, that one day came in from the snow to the writer’s box-car by the junk-yard by the river to lessen the despair of the writer-who-could-no-longer-write: “Smoker, a creature of the lightless depths, where life as we on the surface know it cannot exist, brought light and color with him as colors pour from tar.”(4)

As colors pour from tar. This must be that mad artist in the desert – “Vox Clamans in Deserto” – adding to the effulgence of color flowing in black sands granulated with the body of the god of the dead. After all, Burroughs’ “color walks” are a good deal more than color-coded walkways through Tangier or New York or Paris; red on Wednesday, blue on Fridays, or whatever. A delightful idea, to be sure. But that is only the beginning, because could we not say, as with Vox Clamans’ color-walk, that we are alerted to the singular and beautiful fact that color itself walks and, furthermore, such walking is intimately related to Burroughs’ life-long obsession to sabotage form? “Cut ups? But of course. I have been a cut-up for years . . . I think of words as being alive like animals. They don’t like to be kept in pages. Cut the pages and let the words out.”(5)

Which brings me to Ria Pacquee’s home, Antwerp, that other “desert” of grey and rain and sad streets and architecture, from where she also likes to cut herself out and film rip-roaring color alive in European Elsewheres. As Ria once said to me in Antwerp, “People who are the most colorful are also the most poor.” This could refer to “third world” people in their place of birth, yet also to Antwerp where the poor African immigrant walks eyes downcast along the narrow, broken-up Antwerp sidewalk, wearing a blaze of color for a shirt or skirt. The economics, the race, and color go hand in hand. As Ria also told me in Antwerp, “To get a job here, you have to decolor.”

Antwerp, one of the largest ports in the world, means different things to different people. For me it means Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad even though it was in Brussels, “a whited sepulcher,” where he was interviewed for his job in the Congo as a river pilot.(6) I see Antwerp as a historical hub of colonial violence and trade. Today that meaning is overlaid by expensive art, haute couture, and diamonds.

Why then should a place like this be so sad and drab that Ria Pacquée has to cut out and recolor?

There is no answer to such a question. Maybe the brilliance of the diamonds and the glamour of the expensive art and couture is a response to the drabness and it is therefore important to keep the drabness as a continuous spur to the exchange of these particular commodities? This is a perverse idea, that’s for sure.

What do I mean by drab and sad? Well here we are in the diamond district. It is the Sabbath, so unfortunately there are hardly any people around in the streets and the buildings are closed as most of the diamond trade is run by orthodox Jews, a tight knit ethnic group that ensures the trust and discretion that rare and precious commodities seem to create. On the edge of the district, it is true, there is some color and playful architecture. There is the nineteenth century railway station, something out of a fairy-tale with its pink and lattice gingerbread facades. But the diamond district proper is ugly beyond belief. Depressing, grey, corroding, cement is the keynote, enlivened here and there by an advertisement on a glass doorway, like the one for “boiling diamonds.” There are one or two Indian banks and a window displaying a binocular microscope and a smart suitcase for carrying tools to examine, cut, and polish diamonds. The diamond museum shows nineteenth century photographs of Africans mining diamonds in streams using pans swilling fine gravel as in panning for gold, a job I know well from my years in Colombia with gold miners. It is very hard work. Cecil Rhodes started in this trade aged only eighteen and became hugely rich. Many diamonds come from India, too.

In general, like the vivid colors, rare gems come from or are in the “third world.” Before the mid nineteenth century when the first aniline dyes were extracted from coal-tar, the “rarest, most precious colors have always been imported from exotic places.”(7)

As with emeralds in Colombia, there is a lot of violence and secrecy in the rare gem trade even when it is, technically, legal . “Blood diamonds” are a sources of constant anxiety even when the merchandise is above board. This could be a reason – aesthetic, practical, and mythic – for a low-profile presence of drab grey corroding buildings that look more like shoe factories than places where super-expensive merchandise is elaborated and traded. This gives added meaning to Ria Pacquée’s remark, “To get a job here you have to decolor.”

However, having for so long been the center of attraction, colorless diamonds are now giving way to colored ones which are increasing rapidly in value, especially the red ones. I even saw a black diamond. What is one to make of this uncanny parallel to Ria Pacquée’s color walks as with “Vox Clamans in Deserto - 2003”?

Recall that artwork, with its play of red and black in the desert, the red at times a tinge of pink and russet red in drying meat, being life but also the decay of life, as with the diluted blood puddle. Other times this red is a sparkle in the desert sand thrown by the artist at her own face – she is all black – but the sand is thrown violently and sticks on the black cloth that covers the face, a mask of dark emptiness with colored freckles blinking light.

Is it merely by accident that an Antwerp artist would be thus involved? Yes! I think it is accidental, which makes the relation of art to world history all the more interesting and all the more profound.

(1) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, translated from the German by Charles Lock Eastlake, 1st edition in German, 1810, in English, 1840, #135, p. 55; #835, p. 326; #836, p. 327; #841, p. 329. Take #135 for instance: “Lastly it is worthy of remark, that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.”
(2) Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, London and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1974, p. 206.
(3) Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science During the First Thirteen Centuries of Our Era, volume 1, New York, Macmillan, 1923, p. 13.
(4) William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands, New York, Viking, 1987, p. 247.
(5) Burroughs, “The Literary Techniques of Lady Sutton Smith”, Times Literary Supplement, 6 August 1964, p. 682.
(6) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973, p. 35.
(7) François Delamare and Bernard Guineau, Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments, p. 119.